Evaluating (Mis)Information: Research to Identify Effective Strategies

November 16, 2018

What do voters need to go to the booth informed?  How do people recognize when they have misconceptions?  What skills do they need to evaluate sources for accuracy and legitimacy? It is more critical now than ever for citizens to know how to sift through information and recognize when it is accurate and objective.

Jason Braasch describes an “echo chamber,” in which people with misconceptions about an issue—perhaps built upon inaccuracies compiled over time—back themselves into a small corner of the “world wide” web.

They read only those texts that confirm what they already believe, watch only those news stations that further reinforce their misconceptions, and visit web sites that spew the same false convictions. Thus the consumer’s own voice “echoes” from all of the various media surrounding them.  Even computer algorithms reinforce this phenomenon, by enticing viewers with more and more materials promoting the same inaccuracies based on search history.

In his research, Braasch conducts laboratory studies on ways to help people overcome misconceptions. One focus is on the belief among some communities of a link between vaccines and autism. There is no scientific support for such a link. Still, many people scoff at the science and instead trust the propaganda, even at the real risk of exposing their children to measles and other potentially deadly diseases.

Braasch analyzes features in a text or recording that either reinforce misconceptions or help people get to the truth. One strategy involves asking people to read different texts with embedded inaccuracies followed by texts articulating the science showing there is no connection between vaccines and autism.

In some studies, he asks participants to think out loud, while reading the texts. He then codes their remarks to identify those cognitive processes at work. Specifically, he listens for whether readers believe the propaganda or question the writer’s credibility.

Braasch also manipulates texts to determine whether certain words—added or omitted–are effective in causing consumers to revise long-held, yet inaccurate beliefs. He also believes that the type of reading task might impact what readers take away from internet reading experiences. For example, he might ask participants to imagine that a friend just had a child and to explain what kind of advice they might give the new parent on vaccines.

Strategies might also be altered depending on participant personalities. “We have to account for the fact that some people are more flexible than others in considering belief-inconsistent information,” Braasch explains. Surveys sent out ahead of time help discern different kinds of beliefs that might guide some participants towards a greater susceptibility to misinformation.

Braasch hopes to broaden his research to conduct additional studies with middle school children since they increasingly use the internet for school assignments and personal enjoyment. Studies will focus on the best practices for helping middle school students to understand that texts are artifacts created by authors and published by venues, which may reflect particular biases and agendas.

Braasch acknowledges inherent obstacles in his research. “I think where we’re going is, you know, chasing a moving target,” he says, musing on the unexpected explosion of materials made possible by the continued advancement of the internet. “This research has trailed by a few years to catch up to the constantly evolving platforms in which people are experiencing information.”

In the end, people need to make decisions, and they need to know how to recognize information for what it is, regardless of the issue or the source.

“Our goal, our ultimate goal,” he says, “is to support people so they can make the best decisions they can by evaluating the information available.”

Jason Braasch is a recipient of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award and was nominated by the Society for Text and Discourse.